If it thinks like a duck, what does that mean?

UAS lecturer explains the significance of animals' thoughts

Posted: Thursday, September 25, 2003

A nimal thought intrigues University of Alaska Southeast philosophy professor Kevin Krein.

That doesn't mean he's interested in deciphering the daydreams of dogs or the idle speculation of house cats. Krein wants to know what it means to have a thought.

He believes studying animal thought is a way to understand the parts of human thinking and behavior that aren't easily described in terms of linguistic pictures and content.

"We interact with animals, and it seems obvious that they think," Krein said. "But none of the popular theories on the philosophy of the mind work that well in describing animal thought. They work much better in looking at language users. Animals have complex human communications, but none of them have a grammar and none have symbols that can be recombined in different ways."

Krein will present "Language, Logic and the Content of Animal Thought" at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, at the Egan Lecture Hall in the Egan Classroom Wing at the UAS Auke Lake campus. The talk is the third of 12 in UAS's 4th Annual Evening at Egan fall lecture series.

An Anchorage native, Krein is in his fifth year at UAS. He completed his graduate work at the University of Toronto, where he studied the philosophy of mind and cognitive science.

"I'm trying to demonstrate how the philosophy of mind works," Krein said. "People don't find questions about thought as puzzling as they should. What is it for something to be meaningful? What is it to have a thought? What is it to communicate an idea?"

Historically, philosophers have argued that animals don't have thoughts, Krein said.

René Descartes, the 17th-century philosopher considered the founder of modern philosophy, famously said, "I think, therefore I am." He considered animals thoughtless, and therefore machine-like.

"It is a very remarkable thing that there are no men, not even the insane, so dull and stupid that they cannot put words together in a manner to convey their thoughts," wrote Descartes in his 1637 work "Meditations." "On the contrary, there is no other animal however perfect and fortunately situated it may be, that can do the same. ... And this proves not merely animals have less reason than men but that they have none at all, for we see that very little is needed to talk."

Descartes has been attacked by animal-rights advocates for years. Krein is a pet owner, but his speech isn't intended to be a moral crusade.

"I'm more interested in trying to figure out how things work rather than trying to figure out moral implications," Krein said. "In order to understand what human beings are, we need to look at human beings as part of the world and interacting with their environments."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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